The TV Season: Endangered Species?

As we prepare for another Fall TV season kick-off, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a concept living on borrowed time.

Image provided by imdb/ FOX

Television has evolved slowly over the course of its history. Early scheduling models calcified into a system that lasted for decades. The TV season was driven by advertiser expectations. The belief was that no one watched TV in the Summer. People went on trips or decamped to vacation houses. Schoolchildren on break stayed outside until their mothers dragged them home, kicking and screaming. Potential viewers had other options in the warm weather. The perception was “no one’s home, why air new programming?”

Early network economic models also had a lot to do with the concept of the TV season. Shows cost money to produce. Some of the more expensive programs were lucky to break even with the advertising revenues generated on an initial airing. Summer re-runs were needed to ensure a profitable return on investment in episodes produced.

That wasn’t an absolute, of course. From the dawn of television, daytime soaps aired new episodes year-round and certain children’s programs produced at least some new installments during the warm months. It wasn’t unusual for networks to “burn off” unaired episodes of cancelled series or unused shows intended as replacement programming that never made it to air during the TV season itself.

Grey’s Anatomy: Image provided by imdb/ABC

But for decades, the concept of the TV season launching in late September and wrapping up in mid-May was a constant. Most new shows debuted in the Fall. A handful would pop up later in the year, plugging holes left by cancelled series. Everyone snoozed for the Summer.

Cable networks were largely responsible for changing that, beginning in the ‘80s. It wasn’t unusual for a cable channel to start out small with scripted programming, producing maybe one show. Early on, cable networks also embraced the concept of shorter seasons. That may largely have been a practical consideration. A traditional season of a network show usually consisted of 22 to 25 episodes. With more limited resources, a cable channel might have produced no more than 13 installments. Especially since, unlike networks that will pull an underperforming series, cable outlets tend to commit to airing every episode of anything they produce, regardless of ratings.

With a much smaller output and a comparatively greater financial risk attached, cable networks had no incentive to hew to the traditional TV season model. The Fall TV roll-out is something like trench warfare slaughter. Networks send dozens of new shows over the wall and hope that a handful survive and grow. Cable channels trying to get attention for their shows in that environment was an act of futility.

Image provided by imdb/ HBO

So many channels began debuting their scripted shows at other times of the year. Mid-Winter, early Spring, Summer. And it worked. While ratings for cable programs often were quite lower than what would have been acceptable for a broadcast network, the results met the lower targets most cable channels set.

For premium networks supported by subscriptions and not ads, the entrenched attitudes of advertisers became irrelevant. Programs didn’t have to appeal strictly to advertiser-preferred demographics. There was no burning compulsion to embrace traditional TV season scheduling.

Gradually, the success of cable channels programming year-round put more pressure on the broadcast networks to compete. In recent years, the concept of “Summer reruns” has diminished significantly. Reality programs offered a cheap way for networks to have something on at “off” times during or outside the TV season, but the networks have produced various scripted offerings, too. And some networks have started to follow a cable model for serialized dramas that sees seasons air in two chunks with a significant break in the middle. Coming up with “place filler” programming has become the new challenge.

The pressure of cable had already significantly changed the way networks operate and consider the TV season. The advent of original programs on streaming services, however, might be the biggest challenge to the concept of the TV season yet.

Image provided by imdb/ Marvel/Netflix

Most streaming services are subscription-based, like premium cable. If they run ads at all, they’re minimal. The needs of advertisers are mostly irrelevant. Netflix pioneered the model of delivering an entire season at one time, encouraging viewers to “binge” and watch the whole thing (usually upwards of 13 episodes) in a short span. Other services are using different models, often releasing one episode a week and eventually making the whole season available.

With so many shows available for viewing for the long term, whenever a viewer decides to take them up, the concept of the TV season erodes further. Many fans have little desire to work on the networks’ schedules. They’ll wait and view the whole thing at some later point. That was a trend that had begun with the rapid release of DVD collections after a season wrapped. Streaming has made it easier and more prevalent.

The industry hasn’t quite yet reached the tipping point where the TV season is a thing of the past. For all the changes networks have made over the past decade, there’s still a ritualistic focus on the Fall TV season. The tipping point hasn’t quite arrived yet. There are still plenty of viewers willing to watch “live” TV on a week-by-week basis.

But the old model will continue to erode. And when the bottom falls out, the concept of the TV season will become a historical curiosity.

Originally published at on September 3, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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